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Oregon's Early Learning Hubs get the ball rolling

Summer ReadingSummer Reading Spots in Eugene and Springfield is a volunteer project of the United Way of Lane County to provide literacy-building reading experiences for young children and to encourage parents to actively participate in reading with their kids. Summer literacy programs will be offered under the new Lane Early Learning Alliance Hub.The new Early Learning Hubs are one example in the larger effort to create a better system for young Children in Oregon. Six Hubs have formed this year and begun working to better align services, identify children and families in need and help more children get prepared for kindergarten. In this story, the Children's Institute checks in with two of the Hubs to see what they've accomplished so far, where they're headed and how they're going to get there.

For further reading on Oregon's P-3 transformation, see our blog on the OCF P-3 grants that are helping school districts across Oregon streamline early learning efforts, and the Children's Institute publications Leading the Way: Why four Oregon superintendents embraced early learning, and Baby Steps Into a Big World. They document the birth to third grade work in districts around the state, and also at two Early Works sites. Early Works is an initiative of the Children's Institute that works with two schools districts, in southeast Portland and Douglas County, that clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of linking high-quality early childhood education with the elementary years.

Oregon's Early Learning Hubs get the ball rolling

Frontier Oregon Services Hub

When it comes to isolation, Oregonians who live in Grant and Harney counties know a thing or two.

For starters, the two Eastern Oregon counties make up nearly 15 percent of the geography of the entire state but have a combined population of just 15,000 people. Before a new hospital opened up a few years ago, residents had to drive hours for services, and within the entire 14,662 square miles covered by the counties, there's not a single Walmart, Target or Costco.

"People who live in the city don’t understand what isolation is," said Donna Schnitker, director of the Head Start program in Harney County. "People live on isolated ranches. They desperately need services because they have no connection to anything."

While establishing the Frontier Oregon Services Hub can't do much about the geographical expanse of the counties, the hope is that it will help better align early childhood services and help students and their families get on the right track for kindergarten readiness. At present, about 75 percent of the region’s 1,032 children birth to age 6 are at risk of arriving at kindergarten unprepared. The poverty rate in the area is 18.5 percent, and 53 percent of children are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. 

"We need to wrap all these services around families to make them successful," said Schnitker, who’s serving as the director of the Hub, which also includes the Burns Paiute Tribe.

In Harney County, about 75 percent of children from birth to age 5 come into contact with an early childhood service, including Head Start, Healthy Start, Great Start and others.

Schnitker said the different early education partners collaborated long before the state put forth the idea of Hubs, largely because there’s no other way to tackle early childhood learning in such a sprawling area struggling with issues like poverty, unemployment and drug and alcohol abuse.

Under the Hub, the different partners should be even better aligned and able to identify families in need. The three-year strategic plan includes bolstering the most effective existing services, improving screening and assessment practices and increasing home visits and parenting programs. The Hub also received a $100,000 early literacy grant from the state and a $51,100 Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership & Innovation grant that will help with curriculum alignment, professional development and transition activities for children and families. Schnitker also said that the state's new Kindergarten Assessment, which tests students for readiness during their first days of kindergarten, will likely lead to a tighter collaboration between schools and early learning providers.

"I think school districts now think we’re more important," she said. "Now they embrace what we do because we have to get the kids ready for them."

Though the Hub has lofty goals and intentions, Schnitker said funding for early childhood programs will still fall far short of what’s needed in the service area. Luckily, she said the partners involved have always found a way to work together for students and families.

"We don't really have the money, but the work on the local level is really awesome and the collaboration is great," Schnitker said. "The only way we can make things happen for families is to work together, and so that's what we do."

Lane Early Learning Alliance

Think of Lane County and you might first think of Eugene, Springfield or the bustling campus of the University of Oregon.

But while the 4,553-square-mile county is the state's fourth most populous with nearly 355,000 residents, it's also an incredibly rural one that stretches all the way from the coast to the Cascades. Ninety percent of the county is actually considered forestland.

That alone is enough to make early learning efforts a challenge.

"I think that's what makes Lane County so unique," said Holly Mar Conte, director of education for United Way of Lane County (UWLC). "We have the urban areas with Eugene and Springfield, but lots of rural area as well, so we have to make sure we have strategies that will reach everyone."

The Hub, which encompasses an ethnically diverse population, also has its work cut out because an estimated 40 percent of young children in the county are at risk of arriving at kindergarten unprepared. In addition, according to data collected through UWLC’s Success by 6 program, more than half of children entering kindergarten in Lane County trail their peers in terms of knowing letters and sounds and their familiarity with books and printed material. Poverty is an issue in Lane County, as well -- the rate hovers around 18 percent -- and 53 percent of school-age children qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

Mar Conte, who serves as director of the Hub, said the county has had a "robust initiative" around early childhood learning for a while. United Way has long tried to bring various partners, from the schools and social services to nonprofits and faith-based organizations, to the table to focus on early childhood learning.

"I think the Hub really just reinforces that," she said, "and now the state is mandating it, which is great."

The three big-picture goals for the Hub include having more kids in school ready to learn, helping families become more stable and better aligning services. Mar Conte said that starts in year one of the Hub with an inventory and streamlining of the services presently available. Future years will further refine service offerings and use data collection methods and family outreach measures to target services to those who need them most.

The Hub received a $100,000 early literacy grant and a $290,000 Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership & Innovation grant from the state, as well. Among other programs, the latter funding will help expand Kids in Transition to School, which is designed to boost children’s literacy, self-regulation and social skills just prior to kindergarten via a 24-session school readiness curriculum for children and a 12-session workshop for parents.

Mar Conte said she’s confident that the groundwork laid now will lead to noticeable improvements, better results and a stronger community in the near future.

"I hope that in three years, we have a system that really does serve families with kids in a seamless and easy-to-access way," she said. "I hope this work becomes a shared community value. Everyone has a role to play in it because it’s important for us all."

Jon Bell is a Portland-based journalist who specializes in education topics.

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